University of Montana Deals With Racism Against Native American Students
On Monday, September 19 when students arrived at the University of Montana’s Payne Family Native American Center—a place built on the campus in Missoula, Montana to foster understanding of Natives by non-Native students—a sticker declaring “Save the White Race! Earth's Most Endangered Species” was discovered.
The sticker was immediately removed from the recycling entrance, but the reverberations are still felt by the university’s Native students.
“Initially the students were angry, shocked and disheartened. They wanted some action taken,” said Fredricka Hunter, director of American Indian Student Services (AISS) for the university and member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana. “It was an obvious act of blatant racism.”
According to the Missoulian, the sticker bore the web address of the Montana Creators, “a pro-white organization that is dedicated to the survival, expansion and advancement of the White race—and it alone,” reads the site.
Hunter feels as though acts of subtle racism are more damaging than overt racism. “A person doesn’t waste energy on trying to figure out the message, a person is able to confront the issue and move on. Subtle racism is probably more damaging because we spend more time and energy trying to understand the situation.”
The Missoulian reported that there were no leads on who placed the bumper sticker, but that the incident is being investigated by the Office of Public Safety. Gary Taylor, the public safety director, said he was unable to comment on any ongoing investigations.
This isn’t the first incident at the center either. Hunter said a rock was thrown through a window just after the center opened in April 2010. A blog post at Buffalosfire.com shared a statement from then university president George Dennison. “I find this behavior baffling. Why would anyone—whether a member of the campus community or not—deliberately deface such a wonderful facility with symbolic importance to the campus and surrounding communities?”
Hunter is working on getting security cameras installed around the building to deter further acts of vandalism and racism.
But the university doesn’t want this most recent incident to detract from the work it’s doing toward multicultural understanding.
“I feel that such behavior is cowardly and ignorant,” said Lucy France, director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action at the university. “It is inconsistent with the welcoming atmosphere the university strives to create.”
That welcoming atmosphere can be seen in a number of events held on campus including workshops, the annual pow wow and Soup Fridays.
On September 16, university President Royce C. Engstrom sent a statement to the campus community about diversity being one of the “core values” of the school and announced a partnership with the Missoula Chapter of the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI), which according to its website “is dedicated to moving individuals, organizations, and communities toward a more just and inclusive society.” A workshop held September 20 on prejudice reduction introduced the campus community to NCBI and another one, being held September 28 will discuss resolving interpersonal and intergroup conflicts.
The university’s 43rd Annual Pow-wow, which is sponsored in part by the university’s Kyi-Yo Native American Student Association, was held in April. The event flier lists four area host hotels and, according to Hunter, the event “brings a lot of money into the Missoula community.”
Another campus event started as a way for Native American students to gather and support each other. Soup Fridays are in their third year and have grown into campus-wide events. The one held September 23 was sponsored by the president and attended by about 200 people.
“Our president wants to ensure that we are supported and our concerns heard,” Hunter said. “He is trying to foster a better understanding between our Native students and non-Native students.”
She said about half the students who participate are non-Native and she feels “they have a better sense of who our Native students are.”
When Soup Fridays started about two and a half years ago, it was AISS that would cook for the Native students, now the events are sponsored and catered. Soup Fridays are held every other Friday.
Hunter graduated from the university in 1993 and in a story in the montanan—the magazine of the University of Montana—noted how much she has seen the university expand its offerings for Native students.
And she said the Native students at the university—who account for about one percent of current enrollment and number about 650—won’t let this most recent racist incident get them down. “I don’t want to say that racism is not alive and well in Missoula, because it is, but I do think the U of M can lead the way in addressing racism in our community.”
“The school is a focal point of Missoula, and we have the responsibility to take the lead on these issues,” Hunter said. “We will not tolerate racism.”